Tuesday, January 10, 2012

How to Make Tea on Shabbat

The "tea question" seems to be a common one, according to the grapevine and my own experience. Thankfully, it's a question that all the authorities seem to agree on. It encapsulates a key principle of the laws of Shabbat (and that's probably why it's such a common question): What makes something not cooking on Shabbat? 

The set-up: A hot water dispenser like you see in hotels and at conferences. It is plugged in, filled up with water, and turned on before Shabbat begins.

The problem: When water is too hot, it will "cook" the tea leaves in your average tea bag. This temperature, yad soledat bo, is hot enough to induce cooking, and cooking is forbidden on Shabbat. The temperature itself is disputed, but if you can't hold your hand under it, it has definitely passed that threshold. This temperature matters, among other things, when determining whether a utensil has accidentally become meat or dairy during a mix-up while cooking or doing the dishes. When the water is hot enough, the "taste" of meat or dairy can transfer because the level of "cooking" has been reached.

I know of two answers (and I believe they're the only two), but if you know of more options, please note them in the comments!

The traditional answer: Tea essence. You brew the tea leaves (or tea bags) before Shabbat in a concentrated form. Then you mix the concentrated tea with more water to make it drinkable. According to at least some (I don't know if it's the majority opinion), the tea essence should be placed in the cup first, and then diluted. This avoids "coloring" the clear water on Shabbat.

The modern answer according to R' Moshe Feinstein: Tea bags can be used on Shabbat, so long as the water is transferred from the hot water dispenser to one cup and then poured into the drinking cup. Put another way, there is an intermediate cup between the water heater and the cup you want to drink out of. Put a third way, you need a hot water heater and two cups. You will not drink out of the intermediate cup because the water is still too hot and presumed to be at a "cooking" temperature. The water is presumed to lose enough heat via the intermediate vessel to lower it below the cooking level. If you've never tested it, it really does lower the temperature significantly. Once the water is in the second cup (the "third vessel"), you may put in the tea bag. At least technically (I don't know how followed it is), you should not remove the tea bag from the cup (like you normally would do when the tea has steeped enough). That would be removing bad from good and violate the laws of selecting. I believe there is a way to accomplish this, but I don't know. Perhaps it matters if you never stop holding the string? However, if the tea bag being in the cup really bothers you, you can avoid this issue by pouring your tea (the good) into a third cup, thus selecting the good from the bad.

The yom tov adjustment: Since you may cook on yontif for the yom tov, the intermediate cup is not necessary if you plan to drink the tea on the same day. In that case, you pour the water from the hot water heater into a cup and put the tea bag into that cup, like you normally would.

I believe this is accurate, but if there are (correct) corrections, I will update this page. So it might be in your interest to check this page again in a day or two. If corrections are coming, they tend to come within the day.


  1. Removing the teabag -- the stringent opinion I learned in seminary this summer is to hold back the tea bag and pour the tea into another cup(perhaps your kli sheni?), leaving the tea bag in the cup where the tea actually brewed.

    The common solution I see basically everyone do(in the modern orthodox world) is take a spoon and spoon out the tea bag with a little bit of tea with it, so you are removing the bad with some of the good.

    I think the issue with the tea bag is also an issue of squeezing, since most people will squeeze the tea bag before completely removing it.

  2. Re: tea essence -- in general, coloring (when not done deliberately) does not apply to food, even Rabbinically, and therefore there's no need to worry about adding color to water vs. water to color. As such, it may be preferable to add the water first, then the essence, as there's a halachic difference between water already in a kli sheni and water poured from a kli rishon. Ask your Rav.

    Re: tea bags. If one uses them, the problem with removing is separating; the bag acts as a filter to keep the leaves inside but lets the water pass through. Removing it with a spoon so that the tea bag remains submerged in a bit of water can solve this problem. [I've seen it suggested that removing it quickly and not letting the tea drip out back into the cup may be sufficient; my inclination is that this should be fine, but I'm neither a Rabbi nor the son of a Rabbi...]

  3. What about making sun tea?

    No electricity is required since it all comes from the sun.

  4. It's well known that Rav Soloveitchik held that tea leaves are like spices and cannot be cooked, thus did not require the use of a kli sheni. Rav Willig disagrees and says that even in a kli shlishi it can be cooked because that is still a normal way of making (cooking) tea (e.g., tea kettle is a kli sheni).

    Placing the tea essence in the cup prior to the water seems to be problematic to me, since it would cook the essence. IIRC, the Mishna Berurah (318:39) who is the source for this idea, suggests that you put the water in the cup first.

    @Mel: Bishul b'Chama is allowed. But I'm not even sure we'd call that bishul as it doesn't get hot and no one would think it's cooking. Either way, I don't see any reason to forbid it.

  5. Thanks, this is helpful! Now do coffee!

  6. Nate, logically I don't see how a tea kettle would be a kli sheni, it's put directly onto a fire.

    Also, I used to live in Death Valley, California. As school projects, we'd make "ovens" out of black construction paper and foil, and it really did get hot enough to melt cheese and other cooking type things. Don't count out the sun ;)

  7. Leah, once you make an solar powered oven as you described you are no longer heating directly from the sun. Indirect solar heating is rabbinically forbidden on Shabbat. For example, you can fry an egg on a piece of paper on the sidewalk, but you may not put a skillet out in the sun to heat and fry the egg in that. Sun tea where the tea is in a teacup is permitted by most people I know. I'm not sure what the ruling would be about a glass jar. Source Pirche Shoshanim

  8. @Anonymous - Coffee should be much the same. Except you run into other issues. A French Press has borer issues. I use coffee tea bags on Shabbat in the same manner that I use tea bags. Theoretically, you could put a coffee pot on a shabbos clock and have fresh coffee - the Chatam Sofer did using a long fuse set before Shabbat that would light a fire to boil the water and make the coffee.

    @Leah Sara - I wasn't precise in my comment. Rav Willig is thinking that even situation where hot water from the stove is placed into a secondary kettle that is placed on the table for serving and then served to guests in their own cups is still normal. Thus, Rav Willig contends, a kli shlishi is still normal for making tea and doesn't help on Shabbat.

    In short:
    Kettle on Fire > Kettle for Serving > Tea Cup
    Shabbat Urn > Kli Sheni > Tea Cup

    @Larry - I don't see a difference between the paper and the glass jar. Nobody cooks using a glass jar so it's in no way similar to the frying pan which is assur m'Toldat haOr. There is a safek about a Magnifying glass because it could cook but nobody does. And, IMHO, a glass jar is much less likely to cook than a magnifying glass and that's only a question. Thus, it seems to me that it would be mutar.

  9. FYI-the "coloring" issue is a problem for Sephardim (Spanish/Mediteranian lineage). Ashkenazim don't usually apply the prohibition of coloring/dying to coffee, tea, etc.

  10. So let me get this straight:

    We heat water in an urn and make tea essence before Shabbat. We've also been drawing the pre-heated water from the urn (kli rishon?) into an empty cup (kli sheni?), then transferring it to another cup (kli shlishi?). But the next step depends on our ancestry? So if we're Ashkenazim, we start with the hot water and add the essence, and if we're Sefardim, we start with the essence and add the hot water?

    And if you're a ger/gioret/convert/Jew-by-Choice, you have to "choose" your ancestry, too?

  11. You should've pointed out that if you say "tea essence" you will not sound like an actual frum person. Frum people say "tea sense".

  12. @tesyaa THANKS SO MUCH for that comment!! I guess that's the only way google got me to this page!

    Thanks CrazyJewishConvert for an in-depth explanation! :-) GitShabus!

  13. Nice dialogue, helpful too! Toda!:)